For some critics, it would be enough to choose the ten best films of a given year and move on. It takes a giant — or at least a giant egotist — to believe that one owes it to history to revise and reassess and re-broadcast one’s lists unto death. Two 2008 movies I’ve just caught up with would certainly have elbowed a couple of last year’s worthies aside.
Michel Ocelot’s animated masterpiece Azur and Asmar is a symphony of brilliant colors — heavily influenced by classic Islamic art — in which cutouts move with the poetry of Balinese puppets. It's the tale of estranged childhood friends (one English and blond, one Arab and dark) who edgily join forces to rescue a fairy princess — and their journey rekindles the wonder of seeing your very first rainbow. Also, your first interracial couple. The movie was the hit of last year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival and plays again this year on — oh, damn, it's sold out. Never mind: It will be out on DVD soon. And if you live in New York, you can still catch a host of other features and shorts in the NYICFF: This the children’s-movie festival to make you rethink your grinchy preconceptions of the phrase, “children’s movie.”
From the sublime to … Adam McKay’s Step Brothers, which is mightier than the sum of its laughs. In it, a lot of gifted, un-self-censoring men and women have been given license to say and do anything, take after take, scene after scene, with nothing too crude or nonsensical to be deemed out of bounds. (The editor must have found himself with both an embarrassment of riches and a wealth of embarrassments.) What emerges is gorgeously controlled pandemonium. Unlike most great comedy duos, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly aren’t opposite types: Reilly is really a coarser, more lumpen version of Ferrell, and they’re both competing for the same laughs. But they egg each other on to greater, more debasing heights. They play sullen, clingy, overentitled child-men living at home with their respective parents — who tie the knot. First consumed with jealousy, they discover that — oh joy! — they share an inner landscape, an endlessly replenished adolescent sense of injury. Together, they build a treehouse of the soul. The film would be nowhere near as convulsively funny without Richard Jenkins as their dad, infinitely more heart-tugging than in The Visitor: See how hard he works in the face of indignant 39-year-old children to remain patient (from the Latin patior, to suffer). His new wife is Mary Steenburgen, so lovely and tremulous amid the madness. Little in either Mack Sennett or George Romero can challenge the slapstick horror of the scenes in which the parents regard their walking somnambulist sons (both happen to be sleepwalkers) as they lurch blindly past each other, colliding with walls, flinging aside furniture, dumping the contents of cabinets and refrigerators — the child id unleashed.